Sharon Kay Bottoms

“Pa’s words—they’re water for a burnin’ soul, Adam.” (Joseph Cartwright in “A Brother’s Torment”)

He methodically unwound the strap of his canteen from the saddle and took a long, slow drink.
The man riding at his side fidgeted with the reins of his pinto. “You’re dawdling, Adam,” he accused.
“Just thirsty,” Adam Cartwright drawled.
“Just thirsty, my eye!” his younger brother exploded.
Adam arched a provoking eyebrow. “Your eye is thirsty?”
Little Joe Cartwright scowled in disgust. “You know what I mean . . . and I know what you’re up to. It ain’t gonna get easier for puttin’ it off, Adam.”
Adam sighed. “I suppose not, but let me take it at my own pace, all right, Joe?”
That need was one Joe could understand, and he nodded his acceptance. “Let’s get there sometime before supper, though, okay? Like Hoss might say, my belly thinks my throat’s been cut.”
The mention of their other brother brought a soft smile to Adam’s lips, and he chuckled as he said, “All right, starving child. I’ll make sure you get a warm meal before time for Papa to tuck you in.”
“Cute,” Joe snorted. “Can we ride on now? It’s just another mile to the house.”
Adam didn’t need the reminder. He’d been conscious of each mile that drew him closer to the confrontation with his father. He shook his head as he capped the canteen and repositioned it on the saddle. Why did he persist in thinking of what was to come as a confrontation? A man shouldn’t feel that way about a simple talk with his own father, yet there was nothing simple about what Adam had to say. What he had to tell was nothing less than a descent into hell.
They’d ridden perhaps another hundred yards when Joe complained, “Snails keep a better pace than us.”
“If the pace doesn’t suit you, ride on ahead,” Adam suggested dryly.
Joe wagged a finger toward his brother’s face. “Oh, no. I ain’t givin’ you the chance to turn tail and run.”
“I have no intention of doing that,” Adam said tersely, “and I wish you’d go back to being my little brother, instead of my . . . caretaker.”
Little Joe winced. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to come across that way.”
“I know,” Adam said with a smile just short of agreeable, “but I did mean what I said. Reversing roles tends to upset the equilibrium of the universe.”
Adam pointed toward Joe. “You little brother.” He tapped his own chest. “Me older brother. Keep that straight and the world will run as it should.”
Joe groaned. “Why didn’t you just say that?” He straightened in his saddle and gazed steadfastly at his older brother. “Truth is, there’s nothin’ I’d like better than to see things back to normal around here—you in your place and me in mine—but that ain’t gonna happen if you keep hidin’ behind them big words, Adam. When you talk to Pa, tell it straight, and then, maybe, the universe will gets its—what’d you call it?”
“Yeah, that,” Joe said. “The universe will get its back when you get yours back, so no more dilly dallying and no more hidin’ behind big words you learned in college. Agreed?”
Adam tried to roll his eyes, but found he couldn’t in the face of Joe’s sober determination. “All right, agreed. Now, why don’t you ride on in and let them know I’m coming?” Seeing Joe’s dubious look, he added, “I promise I won’t be far behind. I just need a minute or two to myself.”
Joe smiled then. Another need he could understand. “Okay. Might be best I give ‘em some warning, anyway. See you at the house.”
This time Adam did successfully roll his eyes—the idea of his family needing warning of his coming!—but Joe, having immediately urged Cochise into a gallop, didn’t see it. “Slow down, little brother,” Adam whispered to the wind. “The mood Pa’ll be in when he sees you ride in like that is not conducive—sorry about the big word, kid—to my confron—” He groaned. I’ve got to stop thinking of it that way. Got to. It’s not a confrontation; it’s . . . water for a burning soul, Joe called it, and if ever a soul needed it. He touched his heels softly to Sport’s flanks, and the big chestnut responded with a slow step forward. Snail’s pace, Adam thought with an almost impish smile. Wonder if it’ll bother Pa as much as Joe’s charge into the yard.

* * * * *

Joe checked his speed just before bursting into the ranch yard. Seeing his brother Hoss step out of the barn, he pulled Cochise to an abrupt stop and flew off the pinto’s back. “Hey, Hoss, I’m back!” he announced brightly.
“Alone.” The light that had brightened Hoss’s face at sight of his younger brother faded quickly.
“No such a thing,” Joe assured his older brother with a half-scowl, half-grin of mock offense. “Adam’s followin’ along behind, not far back.”
“Hey, that’s good!” The sun burst from behind Hoss’s clouded countenance. “So you found him and talked him into comin’ back, huh?” He squinted to take a closer look at Joe. “And not a mark on you, unless they’re where I can’t see.”
Joe chuckled. “No marks anywhere. Told you not to worry, didn’t I?”
“That’s exactly why I did worry, little brother,” Hoss said, but he grinned as he slapped the younger boy on the back.
The front door opened, and Ben Cartwright strode briskly across the yard. “Joseph,” he called, his face warm with welcome . . . and relief.
“Hey, Pa!” Joe trotted across the yard to engulf his father in a hearty embrace. “Sure is good to be home! Hop Sing cookin’ up something extra fine? Hope so, ‘cause I’m in powerful need of something better than older brother’s cooking.”
Ben’s breath caught in his throat. Then he smiled. “You found your brother?” His eyes sought the road leading to the ranch, and his face fell as he scanned its emptiness. “He wouldn’t come,” he said sadly.
“Yeah, he’s comin’, Pa,” Joe said quickly. “Should be here soon as he finishes racin’ that snail down the road, back a ways. The snail’s winning, sorry to say.” Joe pressed his father’s shoulder. “Just wanted a minute or so to himself . . . to work up his courage, I reckon.”
Ben smiled in amusement. “Oh my, yes. Seeing one’s father requires a bracing amount of courage.”
“Sometimes,” Joe said, a twinkle in his eye.
Ben chuckled and tousled his son’s wind-blown curls. “Only after misbehavior, young man.”
“Well, Adam did sneak out of the house,” Joe teased. “You used to consider that misbehavior, at least when I did it.”
“And still might!” Ben laughed. “I’d advise you not to try it, young fellow.”
Joe popped him a snappy salute. “Yes, sir!” Before his hand fell again to his side, all eyes riveted on the form of the man riding slowly toward them.
After what Joe had said, Ben feared he might spook his eldest son if he followed his inclination to swoop the boy into a welcoming embrace, so he just took a step away from Joe and waited for Adam to come to him. He needn’t have worried, as Adam dismounted and immediately moved into his father’s open arms. “Welcome home, son,” Ben said simply.
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Adam said. “I needed . . . some time alone . . . but I should have told you.”
“You were afraid I’d stop you.” Ben nodded soberly. “I would have.”
Adam also nodded. He was not a man of many words, and between him and his father there was often need for none.
Clapping his son on both shoulders as he released him, Ben straightened up. “Did you get enough time to yourself or . . . uh . . . did a certain . . . distraction”—he glanced meaningfully at Joe—“prevent it?”
Adam chuckled. “The . . . distraction . . . proved to be . . . remarkably helpful.” He sobered abruptly. “Pa, there are things . . . I . . . I need . . . your help, Pa.” The words were ones Adam Cartwright rarely spoke, and they only issued now with reluctance and with pain.
“I’m here, son.” Compassion was in his gaze and warmth in the touch of the hand with which he cupped the young man’s neck. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Me and Hoss can keep busy in the barn,” Joe offered.
“Quit pushing, little brother,” Adam chided with a grin, but it quickly slipped away. “I think . . . maybe tomorrow would be best.” He looked questioningly at his father.
“Whenever you need me, Adam.” Ben gazed directly into his son’s dark eyes. “Now . . . tomorrow . . . middle of the night . . . I’ll be ready.”
“Tomorrow,” Adam stated with firm decision. “It’s been a long ride. I’m tired and hungry . . . and what I have to say will take some time . . . and energy.”
And courage, Ben thought as they all moved toward the house, while the hand who’d been working with Hoss in the barn took charge of the horses.

* * * * *

Ben set a tray holding a coffee pot and two cups, along with a creamer, sugar bowl and several spoons on the table before the fireplace. “Adam?” he said.
His son, who was standing in front of the fire, gazing steadfastly into the flames, turned.
“Coffee, son?” Ben asked.
Adam nodded, glad of even that much excuse for procrastination. His brothers had taken off immediately after breakfast, and there could have been no clearer indication of how much Little Joe wanted this conversation to take place than his sudden enthusiasm for mending fences in the north pasture. Adam felt the urgency, too, but couldn’t fathom how to begin. A man as righteous as Ben Cartwright would never see the real hell; of that Adam had been convinced from childhood. The youthful reverence persisted, and somehow, it didn’t seem right to subject Pa, much less Hoss or Little Joe, to even the similitude of it through which he had lived. He accepted the cup of coffee his father poured, taking a sip as he turned back to stare again into the flames.
“Don’t you usually take cream and sugar with that?” his father asked gently.
“What?” Adam looked into the rich, black brew in his cup. “Oh . . . yes. I suppose I do.” He dug into the sugar bowl once, as was his habit, and then absent-mindedly added a second teaspoon before dribbling cream into the cup.
With a concerned frown Ben settled into his padded leather chair and sipped his own sweetened coffee. Lowering it to the saucer in his lap, he suggested softly, “I think it’s time, son.”
Adam turned to him with a weak smile and confessed, “I don’t know how to start, Pa.”
Propping his elbow on the arm of the chair, Ben cupped his chin in his hand. “The beginning is usually the best place.”
“You know the beginning,” Adam said, sitting on the edge of the table before the fireplace. He took another sip of his coffee.
“Yes, but it’s still easier to start there.”
“In the beginning,” Adam intoned solemnly as if starting the book of Genesis. His voice broke. “In the beginning I was an idiot. I flashed money in front of strangers and bragged for anyone to hear about what a good price I’d gotten for the cattle.”
“Certainly a departure from your usual discretion,” Ben conceded.
Adam uttered a short, rough laugh. “More what you might expect from Joe? I don’t suppose I can blame it on his influence, can I?” Seeing his father’s arched eyebrow, he shook his head. “No, none of this was Joe’s fault, as I have been at some pains to convince him over the last day or so. I accept the responsibility, as I accepted the consequences of losing the money. I would have made it up from my own account.”
“Oh, Adam,” Ben chided.
Adam waved a dismissing hand. “Oh, I know you wouldn’t have demanded it, but I am my father’s son, after all.”
Ben hid his smile in his coffee cup. “Very much your father’s son,” he said when he lifted his head. “If you mean that you learned integrity from me, that makes me real proud.”
“Ah, be careful,” Adam cautioned, wagging his finger. “Pride goeth before destruction, you know.”
The bitterness in his son’s voice made Ben’s eyes narrow. “I take it that Scripture has personal meaning for you now.”
Adam laughed harshly. “Oh, yes, I’ve plumbed the depths of that one, as well as every work of Greek tragedy I ever studied. Sorry. I’m not allowed to use my college learning during this discussion—Joe’s orders. He thinks I hide behind it.”
Ben’s lips twitched. “He might have a point, but if I can wade through Joe’s theories about kerosene and water, I can probably get past Greek tragedy or whatever other ‘college learning’ you throw up as a barrier. Use whatever helps you get it out, son.”
Waves of gratitude washed over Adam, and he wondered why he had hesitated to talk to his father. When had Pa not been just like this: open and encouraging, loving and accepting, no matter what? Nothing to fear here, but it was still hard to talk. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered. He took a deep breath. “I guess it doesn’t matter whether we talk about the Bible or a Greek play. They both dealt with the same failing of human nature.”
“Pride?” Ben asked, recalling the verse his son had quoted earlier.
Adam nodded. “And it is my fatal flaw, my besetting sin.”
“Are you, perhaps, being too hard on yourself?”
“No.” The word was blunt, decided.
Ben leaned back into the burgundy cushion. “You were proud of a job well done on the trail drive.”
Adam laughed. “I hadn’t even thought of that one! You see how steeped in pride I am!”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t see any problem with that. I take pride in my work, as do both your brothers. In the proper measure, I view it as healthy.”
“Perhaps,” Adam conceded. “Bragging about it, however . . .”
“To Joseph,” Ben interrupted, “who also had worked hard to earn that five thousand dollars and deserved to hear how well the business had been transacted. Now, I agree that quoting the sum aloud among strangers was unwise, but you weren’t deliberately speaking loud enough for those ruffians to hear, were you?”
“No,” Adam said quickly. “I didn’t intend those words for anyone but Joe, and as you say, he was entitled to hear them. I was simply careless and unguarded, and I regret it.”
“An honest mistake,” Ben concluded. “For your sake I wish you hadn’t made it, but I don’t think you need berate yourself with accusations of pride. I believe your sole intent was to share the satisfaction of a job well done with your young brother, for his sake as much as your own.” He smiled. “That comes closer to virtue than vice, Adam.”
Uncomfortable with praise, Adam shrugged. “As I said, I hadn’t thought of that one until now. My pride showed itself later.”
“After you were robbed?”
Taking another sip of his coffee, Adam nodded. “Before that, actually. There was a trial going on in East Gate. Joe wanted to stay to see it.”
“He told me.”
“Did he tell you why I refused?”
“No.” Ben chuckled. “He spent his time telling me how wrong he was to have wanted that, instead of a traipse through the desert with his older brother.”
Adam shook his head. “He wasn’t wrong; he had every right to spend his free time any way he chose.”
Ben sobered as he placed his empty coffee cup on the small table beside him. “We’re not here to talk about Joseph . . . and now you’re using him to hide behind, instead of the college learning. Get on with it, Adam.”
Adam slumped forward. “Guilty as charged,” he whispered. “It’s just . . . so . . . hard, Pa.”
Ben leaned forward to lay a consoling hand on his son’s knee. “I know it’s painful, son, but I sense that this is a wound that won’t heal unless it’s lanced, so the poison can drain out.”
A wry grin played at the corner of Adam’s mouth. “I never realized this family was so addicted to analogies, Joe with his kerosene and—”
“Adam!” Ben interrupted sharply.
Adam raised a remonstrating palm. “Just an observation. I am getting on with it, I promise.” He took a deep breath and plunged in. “I told Joe there was no point in seeing the trial. The case was cut and dried: the accused admitted that he had lost control and murdered his partner, so he’d be found guilty and hanged. I lectured Joe on the responsibility of men for their actions and boasted that no one could drive me to murder.” He sighed. “And the worst of it is, I believed that. I believed myself incapable of losing control, and I said it with pride . . . foundationless pride.”
“Why is it foundationless?” Ben asked. “I’ve always seen you as a man solidly in control of himself.”
Adam turned toward the fire and gazed into its flickering flames, as if seeing there a reenactment of what he had experienced in the desert. When he finally spoke, he asked softly, “Has anyone ever set out to destroy you, Pa?”
Ben’s brow wrinkled, but he sensed that Adam was not still procrastinating. “Well,” he drawled softly as he thought over the question, “I’ve dealt with business rivals, who wanted—”
“No,” Adam interrupted sharply. “That’s not what I mean. Not someone who wanted to best you in business, even to the extent of taking the Ponderosa from you, devastating as that would be. And I don’t mean someone who wanted to take your life; we’ve all faced that, but . . . what I mean is . . .” He swallowed hard and continued, “I mean someone who wanted to destroy the essence of who you are—to take your very soul from you.”
The furrows in Ben’s brow deepened. “No,” he said slowly. “I’ve had my enemies, of course, but I don’t think any of them ever wanted to destroy me that completely.” Oppressive silence hung between them for a moment, and then Ben asked, “Is that what they tried to do to you?”
Looking puzzled, Adam glanced toward his father. “They?”
“The men who attacked you, left you for dead.”
Adam snorted. “Not them. They were just garden-variety hooligans, compared to my real nemesis. Kane refined deviltry like silver in a smelter.”
“Kane?” Ben asked, his face reflecting his confusion. “But I thought—”
“That he saved my life?” Again Adam uttered that bitter laugh. “So did I . . . in the beginning.” He drew a bolstering breath. “I couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled into his camp and found not only the food and water my body needed, but an intelligent, well-spoken man with impeccable manners and even gentility in his lifestyle, despite his rough surroundings.
“He’d heard of the Ponderosa and seemed to think that being a Cartwright gave me certain advantages in life.” He shrugged. “I suppose it does, but not in the way he implied. I assured him that hard work had built this ranch—more pride rearing its ugly head. Then, after I explained what had happened to me, we debated the same issue that Joe and I had back in East Gate. He was far more eloquent in stating his position than Joe had been, but they basically made the same point—under difficult enough circumstances, any man could be driven to murder. I disagreed and was convinced I’d carried the argument, but I was wrong.”
Ben leaned forward, eyes fixed on his son’s face. “How did you determine that?”
“Slowly,” Adam replied, his mouth quirking up on one side, “though I don’t suppose it would have mattered in the long run if I’d discerned it immediately.” He shook his head and exhaled gustily. “Kane offered me food, water and transportation out of the desert, but he wanted something in return—three days helping him work his mine, he said, and then we’d leave together. I was concerned about Joe, of course, knowing he’d be at Signal Rock, wondering what had become of me, but I felt I had no choice. After all, the food, the water, the mule—they all belonged to Kane, so I accepted the bargain and considered myself fortunate that the price of survival was that cheap.”
“He didn’t keep the bargain,” Ben said gravely.
Adam’s head came up. “How could you know that?”
“Simple deduction,” Ben replied. “You were missing a lot longer than three days.”
“Right,” Adam agreed with a rueful chuckle at how his usual command of logic had so slipped that he’d overlooked the obvious. He took a final sip of coffee and set the cup aside, for he was coming to the most difficult part of his story. “I worked hard those three days, with Kane constantly pushing me, complaining every time I took a breather. It irked me that I seemed to be doing all the work, while he sat and examined the ore, but I’d made my bargain and I was determined to keep it. When the sun set that third day, I told Kane that it was time for us to leave. He insisted that we were close to the gold he was after and refused, so I took a canteen and some supplies and moved toward the mule.”
Ben’s eyebrow arched in surprise. “You were going to leave him alone, with no way out of the desert?”
“I’d have gone back for him . . . with fresh supplies,” Adam assured his father, “but I never got the chance. Kane shot the mule.”
Ben straightened up, his spine rigid. “He shot the mule? But why? That was his way out of there, too.”
“Getting out wasn’t what he wanted,” Adam grunted harshly. “What he wanted was to prove that he was a better man, to break me, to throw my own prideful words back in my face.” Seeing that his father was having a hard time putting the pieces together, Adam said plainly, “His goal was to prove that I could be driven to murder. He wanted me to kill him.”
Ben collapsed back in his chair, shaking his head in disbelief. “He must have been mad.”
“Probably,” Adam conceded, “but madman or devil, he was methodical and unrelenting in his pursuit of that goal.” Slowly, phrase by faltering phrase, word by hesitant word, Adam detailed his abuse at the hands of Peter Kane. He kept his gaze fixed on the fire, for he dared not check his father’s reaction for fear that what he saw might so unnerve him that he couldn’t continue. Though his voice remained calm and steady, he gripped the edge of the table on which he was sitting until his knuckles turned white, the only outlet he allowed for his emotions.
To Ben, however, the signs of tension were clear, and his own rising heart rate matched that of his son as Adam related a tale of horror almost beyond belief. At one point he reached out to circle his son’s biceps, but Adam didn’t respond. He just kept staring into the fire and talking, word after tortured word, until the tale was finally told and he slumped forward, his shirt soaked with perspiration, both his breath and emotions spent.
Ben quickly moved to sit next to him on the table and put an arm around his son. “Oh, Adam. Oh, son,” he murmured, unable at first to say more. His son had come to him for help, and Ben feared he had nothing within him strong enough to meet the need.
“It was a game to him,” Adam growled, for locked in his father’s arms, it seemed safe to release some of the pent-up emotion. “To me, the embodiment of hell, but to him, just a game . . . a game he nearly won.” He leaned into his father’s side. “Even after you’d found me and brought me home, I thought he had won, that he’d succeeded in making me a murderer, because he never got up after I—after I . . .”
Ben tightened his embrace, and drawing strength from the love flowing from father to son, Adam continued, “But Joe opened my eyes, and I know now that I didn’t kill Kane. I still don’t understand what did.” His hazel eyes clouded with bewilderment. “He shouldn’t have died, Pa. I didn’t do him any lasting damage in the fight; I realize that now. And he was in better shape than I was, to start with. He was eating full rations, while cutting mine in half; he was sitting idle while I sweated in that mine. Yet I was the one dragging him out of the desert.” He bowed his head, shaking it from side to side. “It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense that the weaker man lived and the stronger one died.”
Ben began massaging the taut muscles of his son’s shoulders. “That isn’t what happened, Adam,” he said firmly. “The stronger man did live, and the weaker one died.”
“No, Pa,” Adam protested. “You don’t understand.”
Ben cupped the younger man’s chin in his palm and turned it so he could look into his son’s eyes. “No, Adam, it’s you who don’t understand. You’re speaking of physical strength, and by that standard, you probably were the weaker man. But strength of character and strength of purpose enter the equation, too. Tell me, son, why did you try so hard to get away? Why did you keep trudging through that desert, dragging that man, when all reason said the situation was hopeless?”
“I wanted to live,” Adam answered simply, and his voice choked as he added, “I wanted to get back to you, to Hoss, to Joe.”
Eyes shimmering, Ben nodded. “That’s the difference. You had something to live for, so against all odds you survived. What did Kane have?”
The light dawned as Adam contrasted Kane’s lifetime of isolated and fruitless quest for gold with his father’s—and his own—dream of building a home and a heritage for those who would come after. “Nothing,” he whispered. “No one.”
“A man can endure a lot when his will to live is strong,” Ben said, rising to his feet. He grasped his son by the shoulder. “Yours was, but Kane’s will was as shriveled as his soul. You said earlier that he’d set out to destroy your soul, but it was his own he demolished in the attempt. And once the soul dies”—he spread his hands in a gesture of inevitability—“the empty shell can’t help but follow.”
Adam gazed thoughtfully up into his father’s face. “Is it as simple as that? He didn’t live because he didn’t want to?”
“As simple as that,” Ben affirmed. He lifted the coffee pot and freshened Adam’s cup, handing it to him. “Would you like me to tell your brothers?” he asked quietly as he poured himself another cup of coffee, as well.
Adam stiffened involuntarily. “Is that necessary?” Seeing his father frown, he said, “I mean, they’re both so . . . young, so . . . innocent of that level of evil. Kane’s dead, so not even Joe can go off half-cocked and do anything crazy, but I’d rather spare them a visit to that particular corner of hell.”
Ben chuckled, shaking his head as he sat down. “You know, son, I think you may have been right before.” When Adam arched a quizzical eyebrow in his direction, Ben said, “I think pride just might be your besetting sin—oh, don’t look so shocked. We all have one.”
A smile lifted one corner of Adam’s mouth. “Even you?”
“Yes,” Ben admitted with a wink, “but don’t expect me to tell you what it is! And don’t change the subject. We were discussing your pride.”
“You’ve lost me,” Adam admitted.
“Could that be the real reason you hesitate to tell your brothers what happened to you? Not to protect their supposed innocence, but to protect their image of you as the unfailingly strong older brother, who is always there for them, without ever needing help himself.”
Adam pursed his lips in thought. “Perhaps,” he conceded reluctantly.
Ben lifted his well-worn Bible from the table at his side and paged through it. “Or perhaps it isn’t pride. Perhaps you’ve just filled the role of protector for so many years that it’s ingrained into you, but there’s a time to be strong and a time to lean on the strength of others. Read this, Adam.” He handed over the Bible and pointed to a verse.
Adam looked down at the Bible and discovered that it was opened to Proverbs, not to the passage on pride that he had quoted earlier, but to the seventeenth chapter. “‘A brother is born for adversity,’” he read aloud.
“Your brothers are mature and strong-hearted young men, Adam, and they’re there to support you,” Ben said, “given to you by God for that very purpose. And now, in your time of adversity, you need that support, possibly more than you realize. Don’t underestimate their strength and don’t deny them the chance to give back to you what you’ve so often given to them.”
Adam sat silent for a few minutes, and then, exhaling slowly, lifted his head decisively. “Would you tell them for me?” he asked. “I—I don’t think I could get through it a second time.”
“That’s why I offered,” Ben said gently. He stood to his feet and spread his arms. “Now, come here.”
Adam, usually so shy of physical contact, moved at once into his father’s open arms. As he soaked in the whispered words of love and compassion, he felt a fountain of refreshing water spring up within his tortured soul, and the haunting specter of Peter Kane was finally laid to rest.

The End
© January, 2008